It's no secret that art games are hard to "get." Not a lot of people understand art games, and just like an offbeat indie film where all you see is a guy standing by himself slightly off center as static sound blares in the background, the genre isn't for everyone. Hell, as big a fan as I am of most things indie, I can't attest to being a huge appreciator of indie flicks like the nonsense I just described. But I am a fan of art; I am a fan of video games; and I am most certainly a fan of art games.
My appreciation for the genre doesn't blind me to the fact that art games really aren't for all gamers. While I can rant about how much I despise Call of Duty for its drab aesthetic and how much I absolutely adore the Kirby franchise for its bright colors and almost poppy design, even I can't defend the art game genre as something that "everyone should experience." That's because the fact of the matter is that not everyone should get into art games. That said, I truly believe most gamers should give Journey a chance.
Developer thatgamecompany has created something truly special. Journey is a game that defies all of the stigmas that most art games are considered to be tied down by. By providing an experience that's equal parts game and art, Journey boldly attempts and achieves to be different from other art games.
The first thing you notice upon playing Journey is just how beautiful it looks. Everything from the luster of the desert sand to the solid color of the sky provides a treat for the eyes that's truly aesthetic. It doesn't take long to discover just how amazing the game sounds, too. Journey's soundtrack ranges from atmospheric to melodic, and it's constantly shifting to reflect the current situation you're experiencing. Like a true piece of artwork, Journey takes different elements and combines them flawlessly on its proverbial canvas.
Aesthetics aside, Journey is an art game because it's so damn thought-provoking. Is Journey a game about relationships and trust? It could very well be exactly that, and the fact that you frequently travel with another individual, sometimes relying on his help to guide you to the next secret, is practically representative of the human struggle for social belonging. Maybe Journey is a game about love — a tale about climbing that highest mountain, doing something risky and stupid (read Limbo, as analyzed by a single guy) just to achieve romance. Does Journey explore life and death? As you play, are you experiencing the emotions that individuals feel as they live, die, and ultimately chase the heavens, even if that act itself may be every bit as terrifying as it is freeing and beautiful?
Maybe, just maybe, Journey isn't about any of these things. Maybe the game is not about self-exploration, but rather a tale about a literal journey. Thatgamecompany could have just messed with us all by making us think that there's some deeper emotional meaning to Journey, while the reality of it all could be that this game is just like any other title that combines beautiful visuals and sound with a basic end goal. Whether that's the case or not only serves to add to Journey's status as an art game. We can interpret it any way we want … if we want to interpret it at all.
It's these artsy tropes that really make Journey fit into the art game spectrum. But really, this is more than just an art game. You see, as much as one can argue that this is an art game experience, there's just as much substance in the argument that Journey is a traditional video game.
Encouraging exploration, light puzzle-solving, online co-op and slick platforming gameplay all combine to create what can only be called one of the most solid downloadable experiences on the market right now. If Journey hadn't been dubbed an art game and featured eight hours of everything it does so amazingly, it would have easily been considered an outstanding puzzle platformer. While I refuse to argue against that statement, I'd much rather argue in favor of the idea that Journey is a true video game that really doesn't give a sh*t about its status as an art game. Rather than focusing solely on the "art" side of the genre, it focuses just as much on the "game" side.
Journey places you in a world that shows you where to go next, but you don't have to do that. If you want to treat the land of Journey as an open world and tread every last inch of it, uncovering secrets along the way, you can do so. Typically, you can get through Journey in about 90 minutes, but if you want to explore alone or with a companion and find hidden items, you can do that and spend as much time as you want, effectively turning this short art game into a larger open world action-adventure game.
What makes Journey such an incredible and admirable art game is that it pays attention to both the "art" and "game" aspects of the genre, something a lot of other titles erroneously refuse to do, and something that so many art games just can't get right. It's inviting to both fans of the genre and gamers in general, rather than being pretentious and overbearing. Journey is art, and it's a video game, all the while being an art game. And by being all those things at the same time, it manages to change the way we think about art games, and it flips the art game genre completely upside-down.